Few spots in the US are more famous in road-trip terms than the coast of California. The iconic Highway 1 rolls along in spray’s range of the Pacific. An especially beautiful stretch of the near-500-mile curve of oceanfront separates two of the best cities California has to offer: San Francisco and Los Angeles. A journey between the pair is one of those odysseys that everyone should take at some point. And with theme parks and family fun waiting at both ends, this is an escapade that children will love too.
Begin in spectacular SAN FRANCISCO, where the Golden Gate Bridge is the unmistakable landmark, and trams rattle up steep slopes. Then there is Alcatraz, the eerie island lurking just 1.5 miles out in San Francisco Bay. Young minds will be drawn to the tales of the gangsters who rotted in this remote jail between 1933 and 1963. Tours are provided by Alcatraz Cruises (adults $37; children, ages 5 to 11, $23).
For a lighter take on the city, head to the Children’s Creativity Museum (creativity.org; general entry $12.95) – where attractions include the Animation Studio. Here, kids can bring their own clay sculptures to life on the big screen with the nostalgic and fun art of stop-motion.
Stay: Hotel Del Sol is a former 1950s motel turned super-chic boutique hideaway – with an outdoor pool.
Take Interstate 280 and the 85 south to Los Gatos, then continue south on the 17 to SANTA CRUZ. Here is a delightful slice of the Californian seaside where the Beach Boardwalk fairground has been entertaining visitors since 1907. Its most recognized attraction is the Giant Dipper, a long-standing wooden roller coaster that has been barrelling around its tracks since 1924. Regularly overhauled (so it’s safe!), it still operates in peak condition, reaching heights of up to 70ft in parts while carrying passengers around careening corners at speeds of up to 55mph. Right next door, the Double Shot is its more modern counterpart, flinging its riders high into the air. All-day wristbands cost $36.95.
Stay: Beach Street Inn and Suites is the perfect cozy spot next to the ocean and the Boardwalk
Distance in the day: 78 miles.
Pick up Highway 1 and trace this highly Instagrammable road south. Beyond Carmel and Monterey, it becomes a jewel of stark cliffs and gradients. Be sure to stop at Big Sur, a coastal settlement where Nepenthe is the perfect spot for lunch and to take in the sights, with a rear terrace that looks out over the ocean. The house special, the Ambrosia burger, is not to be missed.
Stay: Continue down the 1 to Plaskett, and watch for signs that indicate the location of Treebones. A complex of 16 luxury yurts pitched on the hillside above the waves, it’s the perfect mix of rustic, yet comfortable and chic, where children can have fun playing outdoors as the sun dips over the horizon.
Distance in the day: 109 miles.
The 1 is still your companion as you continue on. Today, pause at San Simeon, where the remarkable Hearst Castle (adults $25; children, ages 5 to 12, $12) survives as a reminder of William Randolph Hearst – the eccentric newspaper mogul who had it built between 1919 and 1947. This magical palace has plenty of corners for children to explore, while the zoo in the grounds provides the unexpected sight of zebras.
Stay: Dash to SANTA BARBARA, and opt for an indulgent night at El Encanto. This cluster of luxury bungalows has existed since 1918, hosted some of Hollywood’s royalty.
Distance in the day: 186 miles.
You can keep following the 1 all the way to Los Angeles – passing the gilded houses of Malibu before arriving in the sun-kissed enclave of SANTA MONICA. This is a true gem is home to another much-loved fairground, Pacific Park (pacpark.com; one-day adult wristbands cost $29.65, children 7 and under cost $16.15). Catch the much-photographed ferris wheel turning at the end of the equally popular pier. West Coaster, a roller coaster, adds a little pep and excitement to this placid scene.
In the core of the city, the Hollywood Walk of Fame is a can’t miss hit with older children in this celebrity-obsessed era. The names of over 2,500 stars are embedded in the pavements of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. You can also catch a glimpse of the rich and famous at Universal Studios Hollywood (universalstudioshollywood.com; general entry from $105). Here, guided tours take you around this working studio for quick glimpses of sets that were used in everything from the filming of Back To The Future to Jurassic Park – while rides themed around the likes of The Simpsons and Transformers do further thrills.
Stay: The Wyndham Santa Monica occupies a prime spot near the water and has a heated outdoor pool.
Distance in the day: 102 miles.
Finish your trip at Disneyland (day tickets starting at $97) – an icon that has made Anaheim famous since it first opened in 1955. Divided into eight themed lands, the Tomorrowland area boasts high-velocity rides such as the famous Space Mountain roller coaster, while Fantasyland takes a calmer approach with Cinderella’s Castle, Peter Pan’s Flight and Enchanted Tales with Belle.